All entries for Sunday 11 November 2007

November 11, 2007

17,000 Bad Teachers: Really I don't think so!

17,000 "Bad Teachers": I Don't Think So!

Why Sir Cyril Taylor is Wrong 


There is a continuous drift towards instrumentalism in education. The discourse of "skills" and task oriented achievement has almost totally displaced the thinking and values of those who support liberal notions of education.  Every time I hear the word 'skills' I cringe, not that we shouldn't have them of course. Skills that education should be fostering are those of analysis, and critique, summary and synthesis. These are skills that are required to make good active citizens. Of course a good knowledge base needs to be aquired as well. 

At its very heart the educational experience should be one of enjoyment. People of all ages are usually very inquisitive and an enormous amount at an early age can be learned through constructive play. I always remeber somebody I was responsible for teaching numeracy to on a work educational project. He was far more numerate than I when it came to computing what he needed to go out coming dowm from 301 in a game of darts. A narrow miss of the double 18 meant an instantaneous computation and the next nine darts would regularly fly to their targets. Any misses and recomputing instantaneously was done again. This lad was a complete drop out from the system yet was living proof of the inability of instrumental systems to harvest and channel skills leave alone knowledge and abilities.    Constructive play is seemingly left to our cousins in continental Europe. Rather than having a pram-based SATS certification the children 'play' up until around 7 years old. These same European countries seem to manage to turn out intellectuals, politicicians and administrators with a global status so SATS isn't a passport to power and status then.  

So what is going on then in the English education system which piles on the OFSTED inspections, has testing, benchmarks, targets 'performance management' comng out of everybody's ears, learning styles, differentiation and the rest and still manages to get literacy and numeracy that on the most pessimist counts suggests no progress since the 1950s. 

The Growth of Managerialist Discourse & De-professionalisation 

On Saturday a senior Government Education Adviser  came out with a statement castigating teachers.

Sir Cyril Taylor said there were about 17,000 "poor" teachers in England.

If it were true it would be an extraordinary number of teachers. The information purports to have come from the latest OFSTED inspections. However these inspections are increasingly concerned with paperwork the ticking of boxes and the meeting of spurious targets. Benchmarks are being set which are often contradictory. An educationalist can prioritise one thing over another but it is rarely possible to achieve well in all of them. Success in getting students through exams... just (!!) is often at the expense of not paying attention to other students who could be performing better. The system is increasingly trying to place responsibility onto better students to effectively be teaching other less committed or weaker students.  In the meantime the teacher takes time out to deal with the special needs students who would othewise be behind. The system thus encourages a culture of mediocrity whilst flying the flag for meriticracy. 

In education as elsewhere in the public sector / quasi public sector there is a growing tnedency for managerialist discourse to take over at the expense of professionalism. It is certainly the case that at the heart of professionalism there should be an urge to always be improving, but there are many ways to improve and many ways to measure and many ways to research.

All too often measurements are quantitatively based rather than qualitatively based. where there is token attention paid to quality it is inadequately carried out. The single lesson of a teacher is assessed by an inspector and judgement passed. These 'measurements' are taken out of context in terms of the individual teacher the dynamic of a particular class and any particular problem pupils. Furthermore the socio-economic and cultural circumstances of the educational institution are not being considered.

Socially Constructed Problems 

At the core of the educational crisis today  there are many problems. Not least is the LeagueTables System which had been a major driver of structural disadvantage in society as a whole. This has contributed to the growth of ghettoisation, and the concommittant reduction in quality of services including education in more poverty stricken areas. Blairite policies have been central to this. The fact that there are still 200,000 16 year old school leavers every year who come out with nothing and who don't want to go on in education shows not the failure of teachers but the failure of a highly managerialised over controlled system which is largely based upon an overall policy framework which exacerbates not revieves social exclusion. 

Financial capital and cultural capital tend to go together which is witnessed by Taylor's speech to Independent Schools in 2004:

Most independent schools provide a high standard of education as shown by their performance in public examinations. For example, last year although private schools only enrolled 7% of all school children, their students obtained a 37% share of the 18 year olds who obtained 3 As at A-level (My emphasis)

These figures make it abundantly clear what the class nature of educational achievement is and whilst the shift in the Charity Laws will have some effect in changing the entrance profile for the top private schools it won't be especially significant.  To some extent it will reinvent the wheel by allowing pupils from backgrounds which have high levels of cultural capital but lower levels of financial capital better access to the the system.  However it is unlikely to change the social structure significantly.

Social Structure and Education

Rather than blaming a portion of the workforce for failings which are structural at the societal level not individual Taylor would be better off trying to think through genuine policy solutions based upon sociological thinking rather than trying to recreate the myth of the Stakhanovite 'Hero-Teacher' who will prevail against all the odds to create intellectual and presumably wealth equality in society. Idealistic nonsense!

He needs to read a bit of Pierre Bourdieu the anthropologist and sociologist who came up with the term cultural capital.  Cultural capital often goes in hand with, but has a certain autonomy from financial capital. The fact of the matter is that in Britain today where social disadvantage has been reinforced under the New Labour government partially becuase of tis educational and training policies Britain's increasing numbers of poor lack the cultural capital to value education and to understand the advantages ican bring. Resdistribution of cultural capital is as hard as the redistribution of financial capital nonetheless it must be done. 

In some places it is being done, look at the magnificent example of the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra system for example:

El Sistema has brought the sounds of Beethoven to the masses, by giving children instruments, scholarships and free transportation, in barrios such as the Caracas neighbourhood of Sarria.

Despite being surrounded by circumstances in which the students and children are similar to those of City of God somethingsolid is being done to counteract the forces of chaos and the deep social polarisations and here it is the power of culture which is achieving this:

What marks out cultural capital is not so much that it can be
accumulated, but that it is fluid; it can be converted to other forms of capital such as occupational advantage or economic capital. It has the potential to flow out of localities andto cross the borders of trade, region and nation in the form, say, of universal academic qualifications. As Mike Savage points out the expertise of say, carpentry, is ‘embedded in specific technologies and practical techniques that are unique to [that] physical production
process…’.6 The formation and institutionalization of cultural capital is therefore not only a matter of its individual accumulation and its monopoly by groups; there is also the matter of its origins and of its socio-genesis as an asset that remains durable from context to context. The accumulation of cultural capital presupposes the fluidity of relatively modern forms of objectification: of writing, printing and the reproduction of images.
(Gordon Fyfe Keele University)

There is of course a class issue at stake, those out of the Venzuelan Barrios have recognised and taken on board the wider values of culture previously the provenance of upper and middle classes seeing in it something of universals and an ability to transcend class barriers. The question for the British education system is how to create on a mass scale something which goes beyond the realm of music and is accepted by people at all levels of society as having a universal good and contains within it the possibilities for persoanl improvement. On reading the responses of such eminent musicians as Placido Domingo and Sir Simon Rattle to this phenomenon this example acts a sharp reminder about the current sterility due to the dominance of managerialist discourse which is deprofessionalising our system. People who teach are in teaching because they want to make a difference. Let them get on with it and encourage them not bully them.  Pompous and idealist statements from an overpaid and understresssed bureaucrat are not what anybody needs right now. 

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